Long Reads

How Rembrandt shaped the British imagination

The Dutch master inspired British artists from John Constable to Francis Bacon – all without setting foot in the UK (or so most scholars agree). Rachel Spence looks for his hand in 400 years of our island's art history.

The Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) never set foot in Britain, but his effect on generations of British artists has been to inspire awe and admiration. As 19th-century painter Augustus John wrote, ‘As I bathed myself in the light of the Dutchman’s genius, the scales of aesthetic romanticism fell from my eyes, disclosing a new and far more wonderful world.’

It is not only British artists, but British collections that have embraced Rembrandt. London’s National Gallery alone houses 20 or so Rembrandt paintings, but it is the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) – custodians of just two canvases, A Woman in Bed (1647) and a self-portrait (c1657) – that unravel the rich, complex rapport between Rembrandt and this sceptred isle. Their summer 2018 exhibition,‘Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master’, in Edinburgh, brought together nearly 150 works including paintings, drawings, etchings, porcelain and photogravure by Rembrandt and those who have been inspired by him. Given that the latter range from first president of the Royal Academy Joshua Reynolds to contemporary painter Glenn Brown, the show was a fascinating voyage through a territory that has never been thoroughly explored.

The paintings are sumptuous testaments to the paradoxes of Rembrandt’s era

Rembrandt van Rijn, A Woman Bathing in a Stream (Hendrickje Stoffels?), 1654
Rembrandt van Rijn, A Woman Bathing in a Stream (Hendrickje Stoffels?), 1654
© The National Gallery, London

An untold story

‘Apart from the Netherlands, in no other country has the heritage and presence of Rembrandt been so prominent as in Britain,’ explains NGS curator Christian Tico Seifert regarding the motivation for the exhibition.‘But the story had never been told, except for one show in America, at Yale, which concentrated on the 18th century.’

The seeds of Rembrandt’s close relationship with Britain were sown in 1634 when he painted portraits of Dutch couple Johannes Elison and Maria Bockenolle, who lived in Norwich where Elison was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. Most likely, Rembrandt painted them when they visited their son Johannes in Amsterdam.

The paintings are sumptuous testaments to the paradoxes of Rembrandt’s era. Elison and Bockenolle are dressed in similar black gowns – his a clerical robe, hers a feminine dress – with starched, snowy ruffs so crisp they could be ice sculptures. Their plain monochrome outfits mark them out as icons of Calvinism, a version of Christianity ostensibly defined by its commitment to simple things: salvation through faith alone; austere living; devotion to prayer.

And yet no state in Europe was richer than Holland in its Golden Age. When Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam in around 1631 from his home town of Leiden, the city was a hub of international trade and banking. It was a place where money talked loudly enough for its wealthy middle classes – who included church ministers as well as merchants and bankers – to want portraits of themselves as proof of their status. Indeed, by 1650 one visitor exclaimed that ‘even blacksmiths and shoemakers will hang a painting in their forge or workshop’.

Despite the puritan palette, then, the reality of the Norwich couple’s appearance is one of luxurious, well-fed affluence. Their garments are silky, opulent waterfalls of fabric; their hands and faces plump, rose-pink and healthy. It’s no surprise that they – or their upwardly mobile merchant son – chose Rembrandt as their chronicler. At that time, he was approaching the zenith of his career. During the 1630s he would preside over a busy studio full of pupils and enjoy commissions from powerful patrons. Yet soon his life would grow turbulent. The death of his beloved wife Saskia in 1642 – and prior to that three of the couple’s four children were tragic blows.

Rather than his paintings, it was Rembrandt’s etchings that fired the taste of 17th-century British collectors

After Rembrandt's death

Prone to live beyond his means, by the mid-1650s Rembrandt was forced to sell many of his paintings and antiquities. By 1656 he was bankrupt. Though many of his greatest paintings were executed in his last decade, he died in 1669 so destitute that his body was placed in an unmarked grave. But the portraits of the Norwich pair were destined to thrive. At first they remained in Johannes Elison’s home in Amsterdam, until in 1680, they were inherited by Elison’s sister Anne, who brought them to the British seaside town of Yarmouth. They remained in the family until 1860 when they were sold. In 1956 they were acquired by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the SNG exhibition marked their first appearance in the UK since 1929.

The portraits were two of just a handful of paintings by Rembrandt to lodge in Britain in the 17th century. King Charles I, the greatest collector of his age, acquired three paintings ostensibly by the artist, after his diplomatic envoy Robert Kerr visited Amsterdam in 1629. However, none of Charles’ Rembrandt-style paintings was dated or signed. Furthermore, they arrived as gifts rather than as purchases. Indeed, it’s unlikely the Catholic monarch, whose own taste ran more to Italian Old Masters such as Titian, hankered after a work by Rembrandt.

Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Giuseppe Marchi, 1753
Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Giuseppe Marchi, 1753
© Royal Academy of Arts, London

Did Rembrandt ever set foot in Britain? Most scholars think not. Yet it’s impossible not to be engaged by a note written by the engraver and diarist George Vertue in 1713 which reads: ‘Rembrant van Rhine was in England liv’d at Hull in Yorkshire about sixteen or eighteen months (reported by old Larroon who in his youth knew Rembrant at York) where he painted several Gentlemen & sea faring mens pictures.’

Professional biographers offer convincing proof that Rembrandt never cavorted with sailors on England’s chilly northern coastline. However, four drawings of British views said to be by the Dutch master are still provokingly mysterious. Brought together for the first time at SNG, they show St Albans Cathedral, Windsor Castle and, in two of them, a panorama of London with old St Paul’s. Executed in pen and ink, all are thought to have been made in Rembrandt’s studio around 1640. In Seifert’s opinion, two can be attributed to Rembrandt and two made in his workshop. The source for all four, thinks Seifert, could have been drawings made by Dutch painter Jan Lievens, who is known to have visited Britain and would have known Rembrandt as they both came from the city of Leiden.

Rather than his paintings, it was Rembrandt’s etchings that fired the taste of 17th-century British collectors. On show in Edinburgh was The Three Crosses (1653) which belonged to Samuel Pepys. Although it is unsigned – it is part of an album – it’s not hard to see the image’s appeal. Etched in drypoint on vellum, the tremulous lines entirely convey the mental and physical torment of Christ and the men crucified either side of him, and the grief of the mourners.

The first critical writing published in English on Rembrandt lauded his gift for colour, chiaroscuro and expressiveness

In the Age of Enlightenment

In the 18th century, desire for works by Rembrandt heightened to near mania. Fuelling the craze was the translation in 1706 of The Art of Painting by French art historian Roger de Piles. The first critical writing published in English on Rembrandt, the book lauded his gift for colour, chiaroscuro and expressiveness. As such, it boosted British connoisseurs’ rising awareness that great art did not stop with the Italian Old Masters such as Raphael and Correggio.

Rembrandt, so much more natural, human and vital than the classically minded southerners, appealed increasingly in the so-called Age of Enlightenment, where values of individualism and secular reason were displacing traditional religious certainties. This attitude – inward, reflective, newly anxious that death just might be the full stop at the end of the human journey rather than the gateway to an afterlife – is encapsulated by Rembrandt’s majestic Self-Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669). Now in London’s National Gallery, it arrived as part of the collection of William van Huls, who was private secretary to William of Orange, in a fascinating example of the cultural advantages that can occur when royal houses intermesh across nations.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Hundred Guilder Print, c1648
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Hundred Guilder Print, c1648
© National Galleries of Scotland

The growth of the printing industry was another cornerstone of Rembrandt’s popularity. A surge in inexpensive engravings made his work available to those beyond the wealthiest elite. In particular, the technique of mezzotint, which allowed for tonalities of light and shade, was found to be especially effective at rendering Rembrandt’s trademark chiaroscuro.

The craze for Rembrandt images gave rise to dramatic situations. On view in Edinburgh will be a 1775 edition of The Hundred Guilder Print, the renowned etching of Christ surrounded by the poor, sick and humble as if he and they were equal save for Christ’s halo of diaphanous light. The etching plate was acquired by Captain William Baillie in 1775, who reworked it and printed a limited edition. Then, shockingly, when the plate was all but exhausted, Baillie cut it into pieces and printed from the fragments on various supports, including satin, which the painter himself would never have used. Such mutilation seems scandalous today. But even in its own time the unstoppable hunger for Rembrandt was also cause for mirth. Whig politician and art historian Horace Walpole declared himself appalled that the painter’s ‘works [are] in such repute, that his scratches […] sell for thirty guineas’.

Rembrandt van Rijn, View of Windsor Castle, 1640
Rembrandt van Rijn, View of Windsor Castle, 1640
© The Albertina Museum, Vienna

A particularly complicated relationship exists between the work of Rembrandt and Joshua Reynolds. The latter drew on Rembrandt’s style and collected his works. Included in the SNG exhibition, Reynolds’ Portrait of Giuseppe Marchi (1753), and his own Self-Portrait When Young (1753-58) exhibit the chiaroscuro and golden browns and yellows typical of Rembrandt. Yet Reynolds claimed to prefer Rubens when he visited the Netherlands in 1781, describing The Night Watch as ‘the worst I ever saw’.

Less ambivalent was the response of British landscape painters to Rembrandt’s majestic pastoral The Mill (1645-48). Arriving in London in the 1790s as part of the Orleans collection – which was dispersed after the French Revolution – the picture won so much favour among artists that a satirical drawing by the Swiss artist Alfred Edward Chalon (also on show in the exhibition) ridicules a group of them, including RA president Benjamin West, assiduously copying it in an overcrowded studio.

But why wouldn’t they have grabbed the opportunity? Depicted isolated in a celestial glow overlooking a hazy riverside landscape, the windmill’s stark, luminous limbs conjure a crucifixion scene in a sublimely subtle expression of the spiritual essence that, to Rembrandt at least, animated the natural world. An awed Constable alleged that The Mill was ‘the first picture in which a sentiment has been expressed by chiaroscuro only’. Little wonder Seifert declares himself ‘delighted’ to have both Rembrandt’s original – on loan from Washington – and Constable’s 1806 watercolour copy.

In Rembrandt the British Moderns found a wellspring of authentic emotion allied to a facility with pigment

Rembrandt van Rijn, Reverend Johannes Elison, 1634
Rembrandt van Rijn, Reverend Johannes Elison, 1634
© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA

A lasting legacy

The 19th and 20th centuries saw Rembrandt’s fortunes rise and fall according to the fashion of the times. Since Constable, however – who copied Rembrandt with obedient accuracy yet added a soupçon of his own uniquely English Arcadian mystery – the most imaginative responses to Rembrandt’s art have undoubtedly come from the postwar generation of 20th century British figurative artists.

Including Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, RB Kitaj and Leon Kossoff, many of these painters haunted the National Gallery obsessively in order to make drawings after Rembrandt’s works. United by their refusal to evade a confrontation with the gritty, undiluted humanity rejected by their abstract peers, in their Dutch forebear the British Moderns found a wellspring of authentic emotion allied to a facility with pigment that, as Bacon put it, ensured Rembrandt’s pictures remained ‘completely anti-illustrational’.

One of the highlights of the SNG show will surely be the comparison between Rembrandt’s painting Woman Bathing in a Stream (1654) and the drawing after it made by Auerbach in 1988. Rembrandt depicts a woman who is almost certainly his mistress Hendrickje Stoffels as she wades bare-legged through a stream. Her sturdy yet sponge-soft flesh and downcast gaze embody both vulnerability and resilience. Auerbach takes this loving, insightful portrait and reduces it to a thatch of staccato black lines so that Stoffels is barely distinguishable from the forcefield of marks around her. Yet there she is, surging through as a smooth, pale thigh, an oblique yet graceful cheekbone. A frail yet doughty linear survivor of her creator’s efforts to dissolve her to near-abstraction.

Only a painter as superlatively gifted yet humble as Auerbach could have made this remarkable visual translation. It’s typical of his great talent that when asked about his rapport with the Old Masters, he replied modestly: ‘When I was young, I felt like I was in the ring with them. Now I just need their help.’ This summer’s exhibition should leave us profoundly grateful that Rembrandt came to so many British artists’ aid.

A version of this article first appeared in the summer 2018 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.

About the author
Rachel Spence
Rachel Spence is a published poet and writes on art, primarily for the Financial Times.
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